MIT professors spearhead petition in support of Microsoft employees protesting contract with ICE

Costanza-Chock: “I’m hopeful that the younger generation is going to take much more seriously this issue of ethics and technology”

CMS/W Professor Sasha Costanza-Chock and other MIT faculty members authored and circulated an open letter addressed to Microsoft leadership in support of Microsoft employees who have protested the company’s contract with the government agency Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The letter has garnered over 550 signatures, the majority of which are from people in academia from universities including MIT, Harvard, Princeton, and Cornell.

Microsoft employees originally published an open letter internally and to The New York Times June 19 condemning a $19.4 million contract that Microsoft has with ICE. At the time, the Trump administration had begun forcibly separating and detaining children from their parents who had entered the U.S. illegally. This caused outrage among over 100 employees who initially signed the letter, according to The Times. (There are now more than 300 employee signatures.) “We believe that Microsoft must take an ethical stand, and put children and families above profits,” the letter said.

The contract provides ICE with cloud-based services, which would enable the agency to “process data on edge devices or utilize deep learning capabilities to accelerate facial recognition and identification,” according to a January blog post by Tom Keane, head of global infrastructure of Microsoft Azure, the company’s cloud computing service.

However, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella clarified in an internal memo sent to all employees June 19 that Microsoft “is not working with the U.S. government on any projects related to separating children from their families at the border.”

At MIT, some faculty are part of an informal group that periodically meets to discuss and address societal issues, such as the Trump administration policy of child separation. Costanza-Chock raised the idea of writing an open letter in support of the Microsoft employees in a group email thread.

“MIT is the perfect example of an academic institution that has long-standing and deep ties with industry. There’s sponsored research across the university, and many students go on to work in the technology sector. Academia and industry are tightly linked,” Costanza-Chock said in an interview with The Tech.

The letter was circulated via email lists and social media, and it now has over 550 signatures from mostly people in academia, including David Pesetsky, head of MIT’s department of Linguistics and Philosophy; Chris Bourg, director of MIT Libraries; and Greg Morrisett, dean of Computing and Information Sciences at Cornell University.

It echoed similar sentiments as Microsoft employees, describing the practice of child separation as “inhumane.” “We call on Microsoft, and all tech firms with ICE contracts, to drop those contracts immediately. Anything short of cancellation constitutes compliance with inhumane, abusive practices,” the letter said.

Microsoft has not yet acknowledged the letter, according to Costanza-Chock.

Materials Science and Engineering Professor Julia Ortony is part of the faculty-organizing group and signed the letter. “As a parent of two small children, I can say with certainty that there is nothing crueler than separating children from their parents. The horrific nature of this situation is why it is not a partisan issue,” Ortony wrote in an email to The Tech. “The administration is intentionally causing emotional harm to children as a deterrent for immigration and asylum seekers, and for political capital. It is immoral and unacceptable.”

Brain and Cognitive Sciences Professor Roger Levy is also a member of the group who signed the open letter. In an interview with The Tech, Levy said, “Microsoft’s response boils down to the question: To what extent is company leadership answerable to the moral concerns of their employees?”

In response to Levy’s question, Tage Rai, a Sloan research associate in marketing, wrote in an email to The Tech, “It depends on the kind of company culture that the leaders of Microsoft wish to foster and develop. If Satya Nadella and other company leaders want their employees to feel that they have a voice and are an integral part of the company, then they must address their moral concerns. ... There is a real opening for one of the tech giants to take a true ethical leadership position on these issues that could yield long-term benefits. The question is which company will seize the opportunity.”

Google and Amazon have also recently faced employee protests over government contracts for doing artificial intelligence work with the Department of Defense and for providing facial recognition software to law enforcement, respectively. There was a similar petition from the academic world in support of Google employees who were against militarizing their work to develop advanced weaponry. Ultimately, Google decided to not renew its contract with the Pentagon after it expires next year, according to The New York Times.

“I’m hopeful that the younger generation is going to take much more seriously this issue of ethics and technology,” Costanza-Chock said. “I hope this provides support, inspiration, and validation for students who want to use their skills to do good things in the world rather than perpetuate oppressive systems.”